The philosopher Gregg Horowitz has criticized the way museums commonly present artwork in a “dehistoricizing context.” Museums, he has observed, “neutralize the viewer’s ability to look back at the world from the point of view of the work. It makes artworks into objects, and an object, by definition, is something you look at rather than a perspective you look from.”1
All of my art history classes visit at least one museum per semester, but to avoid this “dehistoricizing context,” I have started bringing one class per semester to both an art museum and an archives. My experience suggests that working with archives can “rehistoricize” the art we see during our museum visits by introducing students to the slow and deliberate process of archival research, and by teaching them to see works of art as primary sources with their own rich historical context.
Artworks in museums can draw and hold our attention, and may even stop us in our tracks for extended contemplation. On the other hand, museums are visually exciting and distracting places where hundreds of works of art hang on the wall, detached from us physically. Often it’s easy for my students and I to pass them by quickly.
As conceptual artist Vito Acconci once said, “In art, the viewer stands here and the art is there. You are always in a position of desire and hence a position of frustration.”2 Sometimes for my students, that position might be one of boredom or overstimulation.
Consulting primary sources in an archives, by contrast, demands focus and attention. The process of analyzing archival materials is slow and deliberate. The care with which we handle the collections and the large tables upon which the documents are spread require not only mental deliberation, but also bodily control (to remember, for example, to point with a finger instead of a pencil).
Based on the guidance of archives staff, I carefully choose a small number of documents for each class visit. This allows students to be active learners because they are not overwhelmed by too much information or difficult-to-read handwriting. With a good handout and thoughtfully conceived questions, students can analyze primary sources and begin to discover for themselves the relationships among them.
This focused experience in the archives has encouraged me to introduce more guided looking and discovery to my class museum visits. I still model different types of looking and inquiry by discussing art works together as a group, but I now also leave time for students to complete an exercise on their own centered on art works of their choice.
At the museum, I give students a handout with questions that they complete alone or in groups in a designated exhibition. A follow up assignment that requires an illustrated post on the class blog can establish some ownership of the museum experience.
The detective work demanded by archival research trains students to be more careful observers of art. I ask my students to identify concrete things we can learn about the past by looking at images, texts, and illustrated ephemera such as how different groups of men and women commemorated the Civil War.
I believe that students who visit the archives develop a heightened appreciation of art works as primary sources and carriers of historical knowledge, thanks to slow and deliberate analysis of a document’s content, medium, format, historical context, and collection provenance.3
The archival research process also helps students understand that art is at best an incomplete reflection of historical values and attitudes. A painting of a woman in an interior and an illustrated envelope featuring a domestic scene may each send a different message about 19th-century women’s roles. Alone, neither is a complete record of the past.
As artist Ernesto Pujol has said, “art operates according to a different dynamic” than the world outside the museum. It invites us to “slow down, stop, reflect, meditate.”4
I believe that experience in the archives helps slow us down when we’re at the museum, making us more aware of the art work as evidence, as primary source, as something that we can investigate further rather than simply taking a picture and moving to the next gallery.
2) Anne Barclay Morgan, “Revolution is Sneakier: Conversation with Vito Acconci,” Sculpture vol. 27, no. 2 (September 2002): 47.
3) The archives can also teach stronger formal analysis skills. For more on this, see Robin Michal’s exercise on teaching photography in the archives.
4) Conversation with museum educator David Henry, in Tom Finkelpearl, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 109.
To cite this page:
Jennifer Wingate, “‘Rehistoricizing’ the Art Museum: How Archives Visits Improved My Art History Courses,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/articles/art-museum-visits/.